An old man said: “… If anyone speaks to you on a matter of controversy, do not argue with him. If he speaks well, say ‘Yes.’ If he speaks ill, say ‘l am ignorant in the matter.’ But argue not with what he has said, and then your mind will be at peace.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers

Obviously “Everyday Asceticism” does not refer to frequency of publication. But as this saying reminds us, sometimes—perhaps most of the time—it is better not to speak at all.

(It’s an unfortunately impossible challenge for someone like me, who has to engage in controversy from time to time in his/her work. But still worth aspiring to and being inspired by.)

In that spirit, rather than offer my own reflection and risk letting my tongue get the best of me (this time), I’d like to commend a working paper by another researcher, Liza Anderson of Yale University, entitled “Gossip, Slander, and Complaining: The Control of the Tongue in Early Christian Monastic Literature.”


Many of the sayings that are recorded in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers contain advice about how to struggle against temptation, or accounts of sins that a brother has fallen into. The category of sexual sin tends to include the most dramatic stories, but sexual temptations are only mentioned thirty-four times within the text. By way of comparison, gluttony is mentioned forty-one times, and stealing and the desire for property is discussed fifty-two times. The need to control the tongue, however, comes up in at least seventy-eight different passages of the text! These examples do not include general exhortations to silent contemplation, but only those that relate to gossip, slander, or idle talk. This emphasis should not be surprising, for, in words that are ascribed to Abba Agathon, “no passion is worse than an uncontrolled tongue, for it is the mother of all the passions” (Sayings p.20).

According to her page, Ms. Anderson is a doctoral candidate at Yale. She gives a great and readable overview of the focus and character of early Christian ascetic teaching about the control of one’s speech.

You can find her page and read her lovely little exposition here.